Union of Concerned Scientists Report: Nuclear “Near Misses” Symptom of Failing Regulatory Regime

(image: UCS report on The NRC and Nuclear Plant Safety in 2011, detail)

In its second annual report on the safety of nuclear power facilities (PDF) in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists have documented 15 troubling lapses–what they call “near misses”–at 13 of the nation’s atomic plants. The study details specific problems that still want for repairs, but much more disturbing, it also outlines systemic flaws in America’s nuclear regulation and oversight regime.

The problems range from aging and improperly maintained safety systems to unforgivably long delays in the implementation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules on fire suppression and seismic security:

We found that the NRC is allowing 47 reactors to operate despite known violations of fire-protection regulations dating back to 1980. The NRC is also allowing 27 reactors to operate even though their safety systems are not designed to protect them from earthquake-related hazards identified in 1996. Eight reactors suffer from both afflictions. The NRC established safety regulations to protect Americans from the inherent hazards of nuclear power plants. However, it is simply not fulfilling its mandate when it allows numerous plant owners to violate safety regulations for long periods of time.

The report also notes instances where nuclear workers were needlessly exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, and plants where failure to follow basic protocols had rendered backup systems functionally useless.

But perhaps most alarming (if not actually surprising) were the UCS findings on how the NRC handled Component Design Bases Inspections, or CDBIs:

Inspectors are supposed to use CDBIs to determine whether owners are operating and maintaining their reactors within specifications approved during design and licensing. Some of the problems concerned containment vent valves, battery power sources, and emergency diesel generators—components that affected the severity of the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Japan.

While it was good that the NRC identified these problems, each CDBI audits only a very small sample of possible trouble spots. For example, the CDBI at the Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina examined just 31 safety-related items among literally thousands of candidates. That audit found 10 problems. Beyond ensuring that the plant’s owner corrected those 10 problems, the NRC should have insisted that it identify and correct inadequacies in the plant’s testing and inspection regimes that allowed these problems to exist undetected in the first place. The true value of the CDBIs stems from the weaknesses they reveal in the owners’ testing and inspection regimes. But that value is realized only when the NRC forces owners to remedy those weaknesses.

In other words, it’s nice that you made the good folks at Harris fix those problems, but when a preliminary audit reveals a one-third failure rate, perhaps that plant has earned itself a full top-to-bottom inspection. (The UCS goes even further, recommending that when a nuclear facility operator–like an Exelon or Entergy–has more than one plant that fails an inspection, that company’s entire fleet of reactors should be subject to NRC review.)

As a matter of fact, the Union goes so far as to criticize the NRC’s entire approach to inspections, explaining that the job of regulators is not just to catch deficiencies and fix them. The entire process, UCS stresses, should compel plant managers to operate in such a way that ensures there will be no problems to catch–and so ensures that nuclear plants operate with the safety of its employees and the community at large as a top priority.

* * *

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a great resource. They keep a close watch on the nuclear industry, and do so with an unassailable level of scientific and technical expertise. They are critical of nuclear power as it exists today, but it would be a mistake to call them anti-nuclear. They advocate for safe energy and a clean environment, but if you read their work regularly, it is hard to say they are calling for an end to a certain technology. It makes the nuclear safety paper all the more damning, but it also poses a bit of a paradox.

In fact, reading this report brings to mind the joke about the economist on the desert island. Don’t know it? It goes something like this:

A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded and starving on a dessert island when they discover a can of soup that has washed ashore. But there’s a problem, how will they open the can?

The physicist says that with just right length of fallen tree as a lever, and just the right sized rock as a fulcrum, they could knock the top off the can.

“Ridiculous,” says the economist, “you will either smash the can or send it flying. Either way, the soup will splatter across the beach.”

The chemist says that he can analyze the list of ingredients and calculate just how hot they need to get the can in order to expand the soup enough to blow the can open.

“Insane,” says the economist, “if the can explodes, the soup will explode with it. We’ll be lucky to salvage a spoonful.”

“OK, then,” say the physicist and chemist in unison, “what do you propose?”

The economist strikes a thoughtful pose and says, “Assume we have a can opener. . . .”

Perhaps it is not fair to compare an association of scientists to the economist in this story, but UCS goes to admirable length describing the repeated failures of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–about how the NRC falls short, from rule-making, to inspections, to enforcement–and then essentially says that if America’s nuclear plants are to operate safely, the NRC needs to “aggressively enforce its safety regulations.” Assume we had a regulatory body capable of regulating.

The Union says that the nuclear regulators are not doing their job–and they go further, noting that Congress has also failed by tolerating a flaccid Nuclear Regulatory Commission–but, mirroring the report’s critique of the NRC, the UCS focuses on individual incidents without addressing the systemic problem.

The NRC has had 37 years to evolve from the advocacy-oriented Atomic Energy Commission, the regulatory body’s predecessor, and yet it is still behaving as the nuclear industry’s watchful parent, rather than its top cop. Don’t just take this report as an example (well, 15 examples), look to an in-depth investigation done last summer by the Associated Press that documented the cozy relationship between plant owners and their supposed watchdogs.

The congressional committees that are supposed to provide the NRC with oversight are dominated by politicians beholden to the nuclear lobby for campaign contributions. This winter’s attempted coup against NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko is only the latest in a long list of Capitol Hill follies designed to distract from the problems at hand and delay any increased regulation. Indeed, the problems with lax regulation and laxer oversight have plagued the system so long, it could be argued this is not a bug (as they say), but a feature.

* * *

Calling the 15 gross failures by operators and regulators “near misses” might get headlines because it sounds so ominous, however it is possible that the rubric actually downplays the problem. “Near misses” implies a bullet dodged, a past event, but the incidents highlighted, as well as the overall critique of the process, illustrate an ongoing crisis. These are not so much “near misses” as they are disasters in waiting.

Indeed, even what the report calls “positives”–three (yes, only three) instances where NRC intervention corrected a safety problem in time to prevent an accident–seem more like lucky breaks. For example, the government forced the operators of Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant to improve their flood protection, and in fact, the new equipment was able to protect the facility form a massive flood last summer. But the inflatable levees that were used to keep the flood waters at bay were just barely high enough to avoid being crested, and one even sprang a leak. Had the flooding continued just a little longer, the catastrophe that the UCS report gives the NRC credit for preventing would have likely occurred.

But even if you extend credit for keeping back the flood, what if (and not to get too biblical here) it was not a flood, but a fire? Fort Calhoun is among the 47 plants listed in the report as still not meeting the decades-old fire safety standards. As someone once remarked about another nuclear plant accident, the NRC is getting “credit for the grace of God.”

Alas, God has proven to be an uneven regulator, too. Those who had the misfortune of living downwind of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima have learned the Lord regulates in mysterious ways. Does the Union of Concerned Scientists really believe that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can change radically enough to force sufficient safety upgrades on US nuclear plants to assure that no Fukushima-like (or even Fukushima-light) accident will ever happen here?

It is hard to believe they do. The report’s full title, after all, is “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety: Living on Borrowed Time.”

While a stronger regulatory body is a good idea–and one strongly urged by the UCS–the report provides no way to achieve that goal. Given the problems and the history, it is hard to believe even the best scientists in the field have an answer to nuclear safety’s political impediments.

So, given that, what should be the real conclusion of the Union’s report? It would be the same as the conclusion reached by any honest observer of nuclear power: atomic power–too dirty, too dangerous, and too expensive.

In the short-term, sure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to do a better job of policing plant safety–but in the long-term, this part of the NRC’s mandate needs to disappear along with its unstable, untenable, and un-regulatable target.

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The Party Line – October 28, 2011: NRC Moves to Adopt Fukushima Recommendations “Without Delay”

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted last week to implement recommendations from the Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident (PDF), and to do so “without delay.” Coming over seven months after the earthquake and tsunami that started the crisis in Japan, and over four months after the Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) issued its report, the move highlights what might be accomplished when attention is paid, but also illustrates systemic flaws in the US nuclear regulatory regime.

The NRC identified a set of top-tier recommendations that focus on:

  • Re-evaluation of seismic and flood hazards;
  • Inspections after earthquakes and floods;
  • New regulations for “station blackouts” (the loss of all AC power at a reactor);
  • Reliability of vents on Mark I and Mark II containments; and
  • Better instrumentation for monitoring spent fuel pools.

This list does not represent the entirety of NTTF recommendations, just the ones the NRC wishes to see fast tracked (you know, “without delay”)–which, when it comes to nuclear regulation in the United States, means years. The NRC said its staff “should strive to complete and implement” these changes by 2016 (though Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said he thinks the station blackout rule can be adopted by April 2014 (PDF), so fasten your seatbelts).

Now, these recommendations (as opposed to actual rules, which still have to be drafted) do address some of the specific weaknesses exposed by the Japanese disaster–multiple external threats, power interruptions, hydrogen buildup, failing spent fuel storage systems–and that’s a positive step because these problems are quite real and quite possible at many of America’s nuclear power plants. But these fast-tracked proposals make up only seven of the 12 or 13 recommendations in the NTTF report–which, itself, is several points short of a truly comprehensive response to the threats Fukushima brought to the fore–and the process (much beloved by Chairman Jaczko) relies heavily on the cooperation of other government agencies, the good faith of the nuclear industry, and a seemingly magical belief that manmade or geologic events on a level with the March earthquake and tsunami will not happen here until after everything is brought up to code.

So, yes, there is a process for identifying problems (at least after they happen) and proposing some fixes with something approximating alacrity–which raises the question of why the system has not been more responsive over the last 50 years–but history and experience make it clear that process does not equate with performance.

During an interview earlier this month, NRC Chair Greg Jaczko was asked about one of his biggest efforts before the Fukushima crisis (PDF & Flash)–improving fire safety at nuclear facilities. Jaczko reflected on it this way:

[A]fter the Browns Ferry fire, we came up with a new set of regulations. Those regulations ultimately I think were very, very challenging to implement, so we’ve been struggling really for several decades to really implement those in an efficient and effective way. That’s not to say we don’t have strong fire protection programs, but we don’t have the most effective way to do it.

The Browns Ferry Fire happened in 1975. Jaczko has been an NRC commissioner since 2005; he has been chairman since 2009. And yet, here, now, in October 2011, 36 years after a guy checking for air leaks with a candle started a fire considered to be the second most frightening accident at a US nuclear plant (next to Three Mile Island), six years after Jaczko joined the NRC, Jaczko says that fire safety–a cause he has championed–is a “struggle,” “challenging to implement” and still not at its “most effective.”

In the same discussions, Jaczko also referenced safety upgrades suggested in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and how those are not yet fully implemented. Indeed, a recent story on security at the Indian Point power station underscored just how far the industry still has to go:

[W]hile the NRC came out with new security guidelines in 2003, these were largely voluntary in keeping with the Bush administration’s anti-regulatory policy. They were made mandatory in 2009, but Indian Point, New Jersey’s Salem, Hope Creek and Oyster Creek plants, and about 60 others around the country were granted waivers so they did not have to incur immediate expenses.

If a major domestic accident or a terrorist attack that, frankly, has colored practically every government action over the last decade cannot motivate full and fast compliance with NRC rules, why should the 65% of Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant believe that the Fukushima recommendations will be handled any better?

Already, events say that they shouldn’t. Within a day of the NRC voting to fast track some NTTF recommendations, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, the body responsible for renewing or extending the operating licenses of existing facilities, declared that it would not consider the proposed post-Fukushima requirements when evaluating an extension for the Seabrook Station nuclear plant, nor would it delay consideration of the license till new rules were in place. This is despite NRC Chair Jaczko’s stated preference to the contrary:

I would like to see some type of license condition that provides a commitment or a requirement for implementation of those [Fukushima] lessons before the plants would operate.

It should also be noted that even with Jaczko’s predilection on record, his term as chairman is set to expire in 2013–over a year before he expects any of the NTTF recommendations to be implemented. Jaczko’s desire to serve another term not withstanding, the question of whether he will be asked–even if President Obama is re-elected–or whether he can get reconfirmed is an open one. Despite originally being appointed by George W. Bush, Jaczko has come under fire from other NRC commissioners and from Republicans on the Hill. And it should be pointed out that Obama’s own appointee to the NRC, William Magwood, IV, is a veteran of the Bush administration’s Department of Energy and has been roundly criticized for his cozy relations with the nuclear industry.

And, of course, the planet also seems to have little regard for Jaczko’s inclinations. As repeatedly noted here, numerous US nuclear reactors have had to scram this year, courtesy of Mother Nature’s tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. (Again, that was all this year.)

So, what’s a country to do? Cross some fingers and hope for the best from a deep-pocketed industry and its weak, captured regulators? Or hit “pause” on license renewals and new plant construction–and even some restarts of sub-standard facilities–until the lessons of nuclear power’s most recent catastrophes are truly learned, and instead spend the time, money and effort on energy sources that don’t require such elaborate safety regimes?

In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble. . . but so many of the problems and byproducts of nuclear power are here to stay. Instead of accepting this eternal and fatalist frame for learning lessons and making changes, perhaps this latest case study in regulation should teach a broader lesson: transition to cleaner, safer, and more sustainable energy sources. . . without delay.